That ’90s Show Is An Endearing Encore To A Sitcom Favorite

That ‘90s Show is shaping up to be a worthy sequel to a much-loved sitcom comfort watch.
That 90s Show

In an era of legacy sequels, soft reboots, and whatever the hell requels are, there seems to be an unspoken bottom line: make this new thing as accessible and easy to understand as possible for people who haven’t seen the old thing. That ‘90s Show, thankfully, ignores this bottom line. The sweet, funny, and sincere Netflix Original sequel series to the long-running sitcom That ‘70s Show is, in the best way possible, built for fans of the original show.

That ‘90s Show picks up in 1995, roughly fifteen-and-a-half years after the original stoner comedy’s timeline ended. Now, Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon) have a daughter, a geeky teen named Leia (Callie Haverda), who definitely takes after her dad. Grace’s foot-in-mouth comedic performance was a highlight of the original series, and he drops seamlessly back into the role when he appears here in a guest spot. Haverda does, too: you can see the comedic DNA of Grace’s performance in her own. It’s not an exact copy – that would be obnoxious – but a branching off of the dorky, faux-confident family tree.

The series begins with Leia visiting her grandparents, hardass Korean war vet Red (Kurtwood Smith), and nurturing grandma Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), on what’s meant to be a pit stop during her summer vacation. Only, when Leia meets the cool punk girl next door, Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide), she decides to stay all summer in hopes of having a life-changing adventure. One of the show’s themes seems to be the youthful eagerness for something, anything, to happen, and Leia’s longing for self-definition gives the show some real heart and an authentic perspective.

That ‘90s Show taps into the feeling of aging almost as well as the feeling of being young. The show does right by Kitty and Red by not making them entirely static characters, even though a lack of change would surely hit the right nostalgia buttons for fans who want more of the same. They’re still the characters we knew – Kitty lets out keening, nervous laughs, Red grumbles about putting boots in asses – but they’re different, too. There’s a loneliness at the edges of Kitty’s character as she lights up in response to kids being in the house again, and Red notices that his disciplinarian tendencies don’t work as well on a girl in the ‘90s as they did with a boy in the ‘70s.

Series co-creators have already said that if That ‘90s Show gets renewed for future seasons, they’ll all take place in consecutive summers. This seems like a fantastic choice, a recipe for growing pains, heartbreak, and the kind of surprising character growth That ‘70s Show pulled off by the end of its run.

But Leia’s off to a good start already, as Gwen soon surrounds her with a group of friends that includes her himbo half-brother Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan), his clever girlfriend Nikki (Sam Morelos), their sarcastic, openly gay pal Ozzie (Reyn Doi), and Jay (Mace Coronel), a charmer with a connection of his own to the previous generation of Point Place kids. The show’s ensemble includes a few new-to-the-game actors, and the pilot episode’s performances aren’t seamless. Still, almost every member of the group settles into a comfortable, endearing dynamic across the first season’s ten episodes.

The new generation of Point Place teens don’t replay the hits exactly, but they bring the same warm, lovably uncool energy to a coming-of-age story that mines humor from the awkwardness and angst of teen rites of passage. In one episode, Leia chases a first kiss at the local mall, while in another, Ozzie creates a sixteen-step plan for coming out to his family. The show nearly retreads a few familiar beats entirely, especially when guest stars from the original series appear, but it almost always stops itself from going full nostalgia mode.

And yet, one of the most delightful things about That ‘90s Show is how true it stays to the wacky, quickly-dated style of the original. Daydream sequences, stoned hallucinations, pop culture parodies, and dance-heavy transitional shots all pepper the episodes. In the context of this world we already know and love, they’re somehow more entertaining than corny. It seems a tough task to pull off a series that remembers the ‘90s while paying homage to a show from the ‘90s set in the ‘70s, all while maintaining a 2020s attitude towards its diverse cast of young characters. Somehow, though, That ‘90s Show does it all quite well.

Newcomers will likely gain little from this series, or worse yet, think it’s totally cringe. But if you counted That ‘70s Show as a comfort watch, I’m happy to report that you can relax into this new show like Red in his massage chair. That ‘90s Show is a good time, one that perfectly captures that summery, coming-of-age feeling that the theme song has always promised – of hanging out down the street with all your friends.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)